History Podcasts

Daily Life in the Byzantime Empire - History

Daily Life in the Byzantime Empire - History

DAily Life the Byzantine Empire

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Up until the 12th century it was the greatest commercial center in medieval Europe. It was the center of exchange between East and West. Constantinople also was a producer of silk cloth. The appearance of the city owed much to the work of Justinina . A large wall was built to protect the city. The city was dominated by a series of immense palaces and hundreds of churches.

Since the Byzantines always felt that an unpopular ruler could be replaced, a number of emperors died violent deaths.

Constans II was clubbed to death with a soap dish while resting in his bath. Michael III lost both his hands trying to block a sword. Nikephoros Phokas was warned of a plot and ordered a search of the palace, but his wife had hidden the assassins in her bedroom, which no guard would dare to search. They stabbed him to death that night.

At least, Leo the Armenian went out in style. Ambushed on Christmas Day by assassins disguised as a choir of chanting monks, he seized a heavy cross from the altar and battled them around the Hagia Sofia until his arm was cut off and he was struck down. Less romantically, the killers then threw his corpse into a toilet.

Stages of education

There were three stages of education. The basic skills of reading and writing were taught by the elementary-school master, or grammatistes, whose pupils generally ranged from 6 or 7 to 10 years of age. The secondary-school master, or grammatikos, supervised the study and appreciation of Classical literature and of literary Greek—from which the spoken Greek of everyday life differed more and more in the course of time—and Latin (until the 6th century). His pupils ranged in age from 10 to 15 or 16. Next, the rhetorician, or rhētor, taught pupils how to express themselves with clarity, elegance, and persuasiveness, in imitation of Classical models. Speaking style was deemed more important than content or original thinking. An optional fourth stage was provided by the teacher of philosophy, who introduced pupils to some of the topics of ancient philosophy, often by reading and discussing works of Plato or Aristotle. Rhetoric and philosophy formed the main content of higher education.

Elementary education was widely available throughout most of the empire’s existence, not only in towns but occasionally in the countryside as well. Literacy was therefore much more widespread than in western Europe, at least until the 12th century. Secondary education was confined to the larger cities. Pupils desiring higher education almost always had to go to Constantinople, which became the cultural centre of the empire after the loss to the Muslim Arabs of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the 7th century. Monasteries sometimes had schools in which young novices were educated, but they did not teach lay pupils. Girls did not normally attend schools, but the daughters of the upper classes were often educated by private tutors. Many women were literate, and some—such as the hymnographer Kasia (9th century) and the historian-princess Anna Comnena (1083–c. 1153)—were recognized as writers of distinction.

How did the Byzantine Empire influence Russia?

Russia has a unique history, and the influence of Byzantium on Russia's culture, society, and politics cannot be understated. The influence of the Eastern Roman Empire changed Russia not through conquest but a cultural exchange.

This article examines the nature of this cultural exchange and its impact on the development of the Russian people. It demonstrates that the Byzantines, Christianized the Russian people, which over centuries influenced Russia's culture, society, and political system.

The Background

The Eastern Roman Empire, often known as the Byzantine Empire, was the successor to the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Western Empire, the eastern provinces continued to keep alive the traditions of Rome. However, over time the Eastern provinces became Greek in culture and outlook. After the expansion of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian II, it fell into a period of decline known as the ‘Byzantine Dark Ages.’ The eastern Roman Empire faced complete extinction at the hands of first the Persians, then the Arabs.

However, it recovered, and by the 9th century AD, under a series of soldier-emperors, it was once again flourishing, politically and culturally. To the north, the area occupied by modern Ukraine and Russia was people by mainly Slavic tribes. Legend has it that a group of Viking warriors under a leader known as Rurik was invited by them to become their leader. The Norsemen who came from Sweden were part of the significant expansion from Scandinavia that changed Europe.

The Vikings became a ruling aristocracy who governed many tribes and eventually created a state-centered around Kyiv, a vital trading center. [1] The Vikings overtime began to merge with their Slavic and Finnic subjects and became known as the Rus, from this comes the name of Russia.

Throughout the decades’, the Rus expanded from Kyiv and dominated modern Ukraine and central and southern Russia. The Rus state was the first Russian polity and is also seen as an important stage in the emergence of the Russian people.

Byzantine-Rus contacts

It appears that the Rus dominated the trade routes between northern Europe and the Black Sea and that their merchants acted as middlemen specifically in the fur trade. It also appears that Rus merchants often visited the spectacular city of Byzantium. However, the Byzantines were preoccupied with the Bulgars, and the Arab threats paid little attention to Rus's growing powers. This changed in 860 when the Rus raided the environs of Byzantium before being beaten back. In 941, the Rus threatened the Christian Empire with invasion, but a peace agreement prevented war. [2] This treaty led to more trade with Byzantium and encouraged Christians missionaries to follow the merchants into Russia and bring the Gospel to the people of the Steppe.

However, in 970 A.D under Grand Prince Sviatoslav, the Rus after conquering the Bulgar Empire invaded Byzantium. It took two years of hard fighting for the Byzantines to defeat the Rus. All the time it appears that Byzantine cultural and religious influence spread in Kievan Rus. It seems that a mother of a Grand Prince, Olga was baptized by Byzantine missionaries. The Grand Princess Olga ruled as regent for her son Sviatoslav, however despite his mothers’ influence he remained an avowed pagan. Christianity was slowly growing in Rus, but it remained overwhelmingly pagan. [3] This was to change in around 1000 AD when Emperor Basil II and Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (958-1015 AD) came to an arrangement. The Rus leader agreed to support Basil in his civil war with a rebel in return for the hand of his sister in marriage. As part of this bargain, Vladimir agreed to convert to Greek Orthodox Christianity. Vladimir under the influence of his wife became a zealous Christian, and the Grand Prince personally tossed pagan idols into a river. [4]

The Grand Prince is today recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church. It is widely believed that Vladimir used the Christian Church to unify his realm. Like many other ‘state-builders,’ Vladimir used religion to extend his own power and discipline his people. After Vladimir's death, the Kiev Rus state flourished for several more decades until the Empire began to fragment because of a series of succession disputes. Interactions between the Byzantine Empire and the various Russian states that emerged in the wake of the Rus's fall continued for some centuries. Still, they were interrupted by the Mongols conquest of the Russian principalities.

The Orthodox Church

The adoption of the Byzantine version of Christianity by Grand Prince Vladimir was revolutionary. Grand Prince Vladimir and his successors, especially Yaroslav the Wise, modeled their church on the Byzantine Empire. Its hierarchy and organization were identical to that of Byzantium, and so too was its theology and rituals. It should be noted that Christianity did not supplant paganism but often integrated it into its religious calendar and festivities. [5]

Following to the conversion of Vladimir, churches, and monasteries began to develop and soon became very important landowners and a dominant force in Russian society. The teachings of the Orthodox Church over time became very influential and began to change society, for instance, they helped to improve the status of women. [6] The Orthodox Church in Russia, following the example of the Byzantine Church, saw itself as distinct from Latin Christianity, which is viewed as heretical. [7] This was to result in Russia remaining outside the influence of Europe for many centuries, in a conscious effort to preserve the purity of its religion which they held was the only orthodox form of Christianity. It also ensured that the Russian Church, closely related to Byzantine practices and beliefs, became central to Russian national identity.

Culture of Russia and Byzantium

Within a century or so of the conversion of Vladimir, the Church was the dominant social institution in the Russian lands. The new religion needed new places of worship and to meet the demand the Kievan Rus state and its successors imported Greek architects to build new Churches. [8] They used Byzantine models and this is seen in the distinctive domes of the churches and the cathedrals of the Orthodox Church. The influence of Byzantine architects on palaces and the homes of the elite soon became evident.

Within decades of the conversion of the Grand Prince, the city of Kiev was considered to be one of the most beautiful in medieval Europe. After the Mongol Invasions, architecture declined, but Byzantine models still influenced subsequent Russian buildings, as evidenced in the Kremlin. [9] The influence of the Orthodox Church was also important in the development of Russian painting. Icons were introduced into Russia by missionaries, and soon they were popular with converts. Frescoes were also popular in many Russian Cathedrals. Initially, Greek artists introduced the art of Byzantium to Russian artists. In the centuries after the adoption of Christianity, Greek artists such as Theophanes (1330-1405) helped to introduce new styles based on the Byzantine Renaissance, ‘which emphasized realism.’ [10]

This influence from Byzantium led to the development of essential schools of icon painting such as Pskov. The Byzantine tradition of icon painting is one that is still practiced in Russia to this day. Another significant result of the cultural exchanges between Byzantium and early Russia was that Byzantine chants and music was used in Russian Orthodox Church services. This was to have a meaningful impact on Russian music, right up to the great classical composers of the 19th century.

Literacy and Byzantium

The introduction of Byzantine Church rites and above all the Bible, led to Russia becoming a literate society. There may have been a nascent Russian alphabet prior to the conversion of Vladimir. However, the adoption of Orthodox Christianity was decisive in the development of a literate culture in the Russian lands. Constantine-Cyril (826-69) and Methodius (815-85), two Greek missionaries who proselytized in Slavic lands, ‘’created the alphabet for the liturgical language Old Church Slavonic that was influenced by Greek models in vocabulary, phraseology, syntax and style, and was the common literary language of all the Orthodox Slavs.’’ [11]

This alphabet became the language of the Church in Russian lands and all literary works for many centuries. The development of Old Slavonic meant that the production of literary works was in the hands of the Church and this tended to restrain intellectual life in Russia, for many centuries.

Relationship between the ruler and the ruled

The Byzantine Emperors were absolute rulers, they were both the head of state and the Church, in a form of government known as Caesaropapism. [12] They were seen as God’s representative on earth and defying the authority of the Emperor was, therefore, a mortal sin. This meant that the Byzantine Emperor was as usual as not an autocrat. Vladimir and his successor adopted the political ideology of Byzantium. This meant that they were both heads of state and of the Orthodox Church and this meant that they were at least in theory the absolute rulers in their territories and they were answerable only to God.

Autocracy was considered the best form of government. This created a society in Russia where obedience and hierarchy, was seen as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, the early Rus rulers adopted the law codes of Byzantium, replacing the traditional law codes and this further enhanced their power over their subjects. [13] many believe that the very autocratic nature of Russian political culture down the centuries owed much to the Caesaropapism’ imported into Kievan Rus during the Christianization of the state.

Moscow as the Third Rome

The influence of the Eastern Roman Empire was complex and enduring. The Russian people stayed remarkably loyal to the Orthodox faith, and the Church played a vital role during the long and dark years of Mongol rule. The Russians continued to revere the Byzantine heritage that was transmitted by their Church. In 1453, to the shock of all in Russia, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. This came when the Duchy of Moscow was transforming itself into a mighty state, under Ivan III. He later married, a niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, and he claimed to be the heir of the Roman Empire.

The Turkish takeover of Constantinople played an important role in consolidating his power and expanding his territories a veneer of legitimacy. The idea that Moscow was the Third Rome, was used to justify the foundation of the Russian Empire and later led successive Tsars to see themselves as the protectors of the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe. The importance of the idea that Moscow, was the heir of Rome can be seen in the adoption of the title of Tsar, by the Grand Dukes of Moscow, which is the Russian for Caesar, a title used not only by Roman but also by Byzantine rulers.


The conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir was in many ways the birth of modern Russia. It ensured that the Eastern Orthodox Church, its theology, rites, and government style was imported into Russia. This led to a social revolution and changed Russia in every way and played a crucial role in the development of Russian national identity. Moreover, Byzantine ideology's influence helped create an autocratic political culture in Russia, that it could be argued, exists to this day. The fall of Constantinople led to the development of the idea that Moscow was the Third Rome, and this was crucial in the ideological justification of the development of the Russian Empire. Byzantium's influence on Rome was decisive and an enduring one on that nation's particular history and uniqueness.

Recommended Reading

Julius Norwich, John. Byzantium, The Apogee (London, Penguin Books, 1992)

Meyendorff, John. Byzantium and the Rise of Russia: A study of Byzantino-Russian relations in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453. Sterling Publishing Company, 2000.

Runciman, Steven. "Byzantium, Russia, and Caesaropapism." Canadian Slavonic Papers 2, no. 1 (1957): 1-10.

Daily Life in the Byzantime Empire - History

Chronology of Byzantine Empire (330-1453 A.D.)

330 AD: Constantine founds the new capital of the Roman Empire on the existing site of the ancient Greek city Byzantium: Byzantium was renamed Constantinople and it would become the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

395: The Roman Empire divides in half, with the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Western Roman Empire based in Rome/Ravenna.

476: The Western Empire Falls: The Eastern Empire survives and now is labeled as the Byzantine Empire.

526: Justinian's reign begins. He reconquers parts of the fallen Western Empire (Africa and Italy, Spain). He codifies the Previous Roman Laws into one document. Constantinople is the most glorious city in europe, with 500,000 inhabitants. The Hagia Sofia is constructed. Justinian is the last emperor to use the title "Caesar".

568: Lombards invade Italy, eventually taking Northern Italy from the Byzantines.

610: Heraclius becomes emperor. Temporary possession of Mesopotamia. The theme system is installed. The Empire's language changes to Greek. Eventual Lost of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to Muslims.

693: Muslims attack Constantinople.

690: Loss of North Africa to Muslims.

717-718: A large Muslim force besiege Constantinople by land and sea. The attack is held off.

721: Regains control of Asia Minor from the Muslims

726: Emperor Leo III bans the use of Icons.

800: Charlemagne, king of the Franks, is crowned "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III in Rome. For the first time in 300 years, there is an emperor of the "East" and an emperor of the "West".

843: The use of Icons is restored.

917: Bulgars under Symeon overrun Thrace.

924: Bulgars unsuccessfully attack Constantinople unsuccessfully.

941: Prince Igor of Kiev attacks Bithynia and later attacks Constantinople: The Byzantines destroys the Russian fleet.

976: Basil II becomes Emperor.

992: Venetians granted extensive trading rights in the Byzantine Empire

995: Basil II reconquers Syria from the Muslims.

996: Basil II reconquers Greece from Bulgars.

1014: Basil II destroys the Bulgar army, earning the epithet Bulgaroktonos ("Bulgar Slayer").

1055: Loss of southern Italy to the Normans.

1071: Defeat at Manzikert to the Seljuk Turks. Permanent loss of most of Asia Minor.

1075: Loss of Syria to Muslims.

1054: The Great Schism: The Latin Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicate each other.

1087: Byzantines defeated in Thrace.

1095: Alexius appeals to Urban II at Council of Piacenza for help against the Turks. The First Crusade is proclaimed at Council of Clermont.

1096: Crusaders arrive at Constantinople. The Crusaders are successful, but eventually withdraw from cooperation with the Byzantines.

1121: Reconquest of southwestern Asia Minor.

1179: Byzantine Army defeated by the Sultanate of Rum at Myriokephalon. Hopes of regaining Asia Minor are lost.

1202: Fourth Crusade is assembled at Venice.

1204: Fourth Crusade captures Constantinople. The Latin Empire of Constantinople is formed as well as many Byzantine successor states. The capture of Constantinople in 1204 was a blow from which the Byzantines never fully recovered.

1261: The successor state of Nicaea recaptures Constantinople and restores the Byzantine Empire.

1453: Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. End of the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Empire

Jewish communities existed in the Byzantine Empire throughout its history, from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. The centers of Jewish population and the status of the Jews there underwent drastic changes throughout this long period and shifted under the impact of events within and outside the empire. The history of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire can therefore be divided into three major sections.

From Constantine to the Iconoclastic Period (c. 720)

Numerous Jewish communities were located in the eastern Mediterranean region, including the Balkans, present-day Greece, Asia Minor, Constantinople, Syria, Ereẓ Israel (which alone had 43 communities), and Egypt. The legal status accorded to the Jewish faith within the Roman Empire as a religio licita (a religion permitted by law) was not changed explicitly. However, the attitude of the Byzantine rulers and society in practice, the methods employed by the Church, the language of official documents and legislation on details combined to humiliate the Jews and narrow the confines of Jewish society and religion and the opportunities open to Jews. Almost at the beginning of his legislative activity Constantine described the Jewish religion as "baleful," and warned Jews, under threat of capital punishment, not to molest converts to Christianity. The second part of the law containing this injunction made it a crime to become a Jew: a Jew who circumcised his slave forfeited ownership of the slave (Cod. Theod. 16:8 (4, 1, 5)). Constantine and his mother Helena inspired a movement to Christianize Ereẓ Israel. His son Constantius added to his father's legislation a prohibition on marriage between Jews and Christians. An abortive revolt by the Jews in Ereẓ Israel against the provincial commander Gallus during his reign was suppressed in 351. The benign interlude of the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate only resulted in increased enmity on the Christian side and disappointment to the Jews.

The failure of Julian's plans to revive the pagan empire and its tolerance of the Jewish religion contributed to the breakdown of the old concepts and existent attitudes among religions and people. The consistent fanaticism prevailing in Byzantine Christendom covers the long span from Julian's death until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Emperor Theodosius I revived missionary activity and prohibited Jewish parents from disinheriting children who had apostatized to Christianity. However, the burning of the synagogue in Callinicum (Mesopotamia) in 388 led to a clash between the imperial traditions and the aims of the Church. The emperor still tried to uphold the imperial tradition of law and order for all, including the Jews. He therefore ordered that the perpetrators of the outrage in Callinicum should be punished and the synagogue reconstructed at their expense. Ambrose , the bishop of Milan, viewed the emperor's order as sacrilegious and succeeded in compelling him to annul it. Thus toward the end of the fourth century the humiliation of the Jews and ascendancy of ecclesiastical ideas in regulating their affairs became established in the Byzantine Empire in both theory and practice. The temporary expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria by the patriarch Cyril in 415 also marked a victory for the hatred stirred up by the Church among the populace with assistance from the authorities. The code of Theodosius II (438) summed up the former anti-Jewish legislation, and included a prohibition on building new synagogues, permitting structural repairs only if absolutely necessary. Certain Purim celebrations were forbidden. In spirit and language this fifth-century codification crystallizes the atmosphere prevailing in the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century. A Church rent by internal struggles, bent on heresy hunting with the help of the imperial authority, and using increasingly violent and uncouth language toward its Christian adversaries, developed over the fourth century a vitriolic anti-Jewish polemic literature. Both writers and preachers seemingly vied with one another in their acrimony toward, and vilification of, the Jews and Judaism. In the eight sermons delivered by John Chrysostom from his pulpit in Antioch in 387, every imaginable evil is ascribed to the Jews. The venom embodied in these writings and sermons to a large degree lies at the root of medieval Jew-hatred, spreading beyond the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire and its culture.

In the sixth century the reign of Justinian I inaugurated a hardening of attitudes toward the Jews and a departure for the worse in their treatment. The Jewish-Arab kingdom of Ḥimyar in southern Arabia was destroyed on Byzantine instigation. Justinian attempted to regulate internal Jewish life and modes of worship in accordance with what he considered necessary and right from a Christian point of view through a number of laws and practical actions. In his famous novella 146, of the year 553, he even attempted to dictate to the Jews concerning their divine worship and forbade the use of the deuterosis (Mishnah) for understanding the Torah he also took it upon himself to lay down which biblical translation ( Targum ) they might use. This gross interference in Jewish religious practice is justified in the novella by hints that there was a division within Jewish society on these matters. However, while it is known that Greek was then beginning to be used in the Byzantine communities, which developed the "Romaniot" rite of prayer, it is also certain that no professing Jews would have asked for an imperial order to use translations which were mainly Christological. Justinian's tendency to resort to coercion found its severest expression in his novella 37, of 535, prohibiting the practice of Judaism in the reconquered territories in North Africa. All these measures were included in his Corpus juris civilis, with other anti-Jewish legislation. The first half of the sixth century saw a severely enforced but short-lived attempt by the emperor to abolish formally the last shreds left to Judaism of its status as a religio licita. Under assault from enemies from both within and without, the emperors of the weak empire of the second half of the sixth and first half of the seventh centuries permitted anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions of the Jews, such as ordered by Emperor Phocas in 608. The Jews reacted by revolts in self-defense. In the uprising near Antioch in 608 the patriarch was killed. The clashes of opposing forces and violence came to a head under Emperor Heraclius , when the Jews, notable among them Benjamin of Tiberias, allied themselves with the invading Persians during their capture of Jerusalem. On its recapture in 629, Heraclius avenged himself on the Jewish population by a series of massacres.

The appearance of Islam and the Muslim conquests deprived the Byzantine Empire of Ereẓ Israel and Egypt among other territories and awakened messianic expectations among the Jews (see Messianic movements ). In the remnant left to the Byzantine Empire the prevailing attitude toward the Jews was not relaxed. A council presided over by Emperor Justinian II in 692 prohibited Jews and Christians from bathing together in public places, and Christians from consulting Jewish physicians.

At the beginning of this period, the Jews formed part and parcel of civic life in the towns. Like others, they refused to serve in the decurionate Constantine's enforcement of their obligation to do so reflected the general reluctance of the citizenry to undertake this onerous municipal function and a specifically anti-Jewish bias on the part of the emperor. The Jews gradually withdrew from, or were forced out of, civic life, although they still continued to be active in the circus parties for a long time. The abolition of the Jewish patriarchate (see Nasi ) in Ereẓ Israel in 425 threw back Jewish communal life onto the local leadership, already well established before this troubled time. The community's elders (presbyteroi), archipherecites , and leaders with other titles led Jewish society in the various localities in all aspects of life. Apparently birth and wealth, in addition to scholarship, were major factors in attaining these leading positions. In the economic sphere, the Jews were only gradually ousted from their professions and positions of wealth, and from their places of residence in the cities (see Constantinople). Many of them engaged in overland and maritime commerce. In a number of areas, such as Ereẓ Israel and Egypt, there was still a solid Jewish peasant population. In the sixth century dyeing is mentioned as a major Jewish industry, remaining so down to the end of the Byzantine Empire.

In the cultural sphere, the center in Ereẓ Israel and its institutions led creative endeavor within the Byzantine communities in every field, even after the Arab incursions. Ereẓ Israel was the main source of Hebrew liturgical poetry, its leading poets including Yose b. Yose , Yannai , and Eleazar Kallir . The monk Romanos, an apostate from Judaism, had a formative influence on Byzantine hymnology, transposing the mode of religious expression and worship used by the paytanim to the Byzantine liturgy and cultural expression. The violent changes at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries aroused visions of an apocalyptic nature among Byzantine Jewry.

From the Iconoclastic Period to the Fourth Crusade (1204)

Throughout this period Jews were living in the major cities in the territories still remaining under Byzantine rule. The situation of the Jews in the Byzantine domains of southern Italy is well documented through the contacts they had with Ereẓ Israel as well as with countries under Christian rule, and by information given in the chronicle of Ahimaaz . Main centers were Bari , Oria , and Otranto . Benjamin of Tudela in the mid-12 th century describes many communities in the Balkans and Asia Minor, and in Constantinople, with their varied economy. The very nature of the Iconoclastic movement made its adherents suspicious of possible Jewish influences. The actual degree of such influence, if any, on the emperors and priests who rejected icon worship is still very much in dispute. Their opponents, the icon worshipers, regarded this influence as a certainty, and the iconoclasts were branded in sermons and tales circulating at the time as "Jews." The final restoration of icon worship in 843 was accompanied by renewed violent anti-Jewish manifestations. Basil I issued a decree ordering the forcible conversion of his Jewish subjects in 873&ndash74, and in the Ahimaaz chronicle he is depicted as the archenemy of Judaism and the Jews. The decree was rescinded by Leo VI. In 943 Romanus I Lecapenus made another attempt at forcible conversion. There are reports of Jews who fled to Khazaria from these persecutions. Byzantine Jewry in the 11 th and 12 th centuries apparently lived under a regime of absolute humiliation although assured of relative safety for their lives and property.

The economic structure of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire remained substantially the same in this period. Benjamin of Tudela found Jews in the Balkans engaged in agriculture, besides being occupied in the silk weaving and cloth dyeing industries which were widespread Jewish occupations throughout the Byzantine communities. According to his descriptions of the communal leadership, the smaller communities were headed by two elders and the larger by five. He seems to indicate that the Karaites had a separate communal organization and leadership. The most flourishing area of Byzantine Jewish cultural life at the time was to be found in southern Italy. The stories in the Ahimaaz chronicle describe the strong ties of the Jews there with the center of learning in Ereẓ Israel and denote that a good knowledge of Hebrew was widespread, as well as showing the imprint of mystical and even magical elements on Jewish society in this area. Members of the upper circles of Jewish society are pictured as living a warm and diversified family life. The Josippon chronicle, which was compiled in southern Italy in this period, reflects in many places the influence of Byzantine views and chronographical techniques. Southern Italy in the 9 th to 11 th centuries produced a considerable number of paytanim. Through its contacts with the north, it became the fountainhead of the Jewish culture of Ashkenaz and the matrix of the Ashkenazi prayer rite. The Karaite communities also had a rich and variegated cultural life from the second half of the 11 th century, centering around Constantinople. Prominent Karaite scholars of Byzantium were Jacob b. Reuben , Judah Hadassi , and Tobias b. Moses . In some of the writings of this period apocalyptic ideas continue to find expression, as in the Vision of Daniel . The First Crusade of 1096 gave rise to a messianic movement in Salonika.

From the Fourth Crusade to the Capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453

The Fourth Crusade (1204) disrupted the Byzantine Empire and placed its Jewish communities under the various administrations set up by the Latin (i.e., Western European) countries which had taken part in the crusade. The Jewish quarter in Constantinople, Pera, was burned down and pillaged during the sack of the city by the Latins. After the Latin rule ended in 1261 Jews lived both in Pera and outside the area, including parts of the city where the Venetians had been given special rights and commercial privileges. The existence of a Jewish quarter outside Pera elicited a complaint from the patriarch Athanasius to Emperor Andronicus II (1282&ndash1328), who before 1319 assigned the Jews a quarter near that of the Venetians, although they were not restricted to that area. Many engaged in tanning, and the majority apparently were wealthy. Neither the native dynasty nor the Latin rulers made basic changes in the status of the Jews. In the parts of Greece and the Balkans, however, which fell to various Greek rulers and minor royalty (often referred to as "despots"), proscriptions of Judaism were issued at times, as in Epirus and Salonika under Theodore I Angelus (1214&ndash1230), and in Nicaea under John III Vatatzes (1222&ndash1254). Other former imperial lands, such as Chalcis, Rhodes, Patras, and Cyprus, were ruled by the Genoese, the Venetians, the Knights of Malta, the Veronese, and the Turks. The Jews continued to pursue their previous occupations, particularly the silk trade and commerce.

Social and Cultural Life

Jews in all these areas continued to follow the Romaniot rite which developed specific features. Among the Karaites there was extensive cultural activity, represented by such scholars as Aaron b. Joseph ha-Rofe , the Bashyazi family, and Caleb b. Elijah Afendopolo . The year 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. For the Jews its downfall, after a short period of disruption, brought a renewed lease on life in the Ottoman Empire in much improved conditions. Less than half a century later, the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal found communities in the former Byzantine Empire ready and able to shoulder the burden of absorbing the refugees economically, and capable of integrating their social and cultural life. Although little information is available about conditions in the communities in this period, scholars and leaders of the stature of Elijah b. Abraham Mizraḥi and Moses b. Elijah Capsali , with their diversified scholarship, creative abilities, and well-developed methods of leadership, could not have arisen out of a void. That the conditions existed in which they were able to flourish shows that in the period before the Ottoman conquest, Byzantine Romaniot Jewry had large reserves of intellectual ability and social cohesion, continuing a situation which still prevailed after the troubles of 1204.


J. Starr, The Jews in the Byzantine Empire 641&ndash1204 (1939, repr. 1969) idem, Romania: The Jewries of the Levant after the Fourth Crusade (1949) idem, in: Speculum 8 (1933), 500&ndash3 idem, in: JPOS, 15 (1935), 280&ndash93 idem, in: HTR, 29 (1936), 93&ndash107 idem, in: REJ, 102 (1937), 81&ndash92 idem, in: Byzantinisch-neugriechische Jahrbuecher, 16 (1940), 192&ndash6 A. Scharf, Jews in Byzantium (1970) H. Lewy, Olamot Nifgashim (1962), 221f. Baron, Social 2 , index Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), 30&ndash39 K. Hilkowitz, in: Zion, 4 (1939), 307&ndash16 Y. Even-Shemuel (Kaufmann), Midreshei Ge'ullah (1957), 16&ndash252 Juster, Juifs, index Z. Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium (1959) S. Assaf, in: Sefer ha-Yovel&hellip S. Krauss (1937), 169&ndash77 A. Galanté, Les Juifs de Constantinople sous Byzance (1940) R.S. Lopez, in: Speculum, 20 (1945), 22ff. M.N. Adler (ed.), Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907) B. Klar (ed.), Megillat Aḥima'aẓ (1944) M. Salzman (ed. and tr.), Chronicle of Ahimaaz (1924) D. Flusser, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 109&ndash26 Alon, Toledot 2 , 1 (1958), 19&ndash24 S. Simonsohn, in: Dat ve-Ḥevrah, ed. by Ha-Ḥevrah ha-Historit ha-Yisre'elit (1964), 81&ndash92. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium: 1204&ndash1453 (1985), 277.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Download our mobile app for on-the-go access to the Jewish Virtual Library

Books About the Byzantine Empire

Unless otherwise noted, these books are for sale at Amazon.com. Your purchase through these links will result in a commission for the owner of the Royalty.nu site.

The Byzantine Empire

Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium by Gilbert Dagron. The Byzantine emperor was sometimes also designated a priest. This book studies in detail the imperial union of "two powers," temporal and spiritual.

Imperial Byzantine Portraits by Constance Head. A study of portraits of all Byzantine rulers as depicted in paintings, sculpture, coins, and illuminated manuscripts.

The Emperor in the Byzantine World: Papers From the Forty-Seventh Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies edited by Shaun Tougher. Themes include dynasty and imperial families, the imperial court, imperial duties, and the emperor as author.


Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth. The astonishing saga of the emperors who ruled Byzantium, from Constantine to Constantine XI.

The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500-1492 by Jonathan Shepard. Includes maps, a glossary, an alternative place-name table, and references to English translations of sources.

Oxford History of Byzantium edited by Cyril Mango. Essays and illustrations portray the emergence and development of the Byzantine Empire from the fourth century to the mid-15th century.

History of the Byzantine State by Georgije Ostrogorski. Long recognized as the basic history of the Byzantine Empire, this book captures the full sweep, grandeur, and tragedy of Byzantium's rise and fall.

A History of Byzantium by Timothy Gregory. A concise narrative of Byzantine history from the time of Constantine the Great (AD 306) to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Byzantine Empire by Robert Browning. An introduction to the Byzantine world. Browning rejects the traditional concept of decline and fall, seeing Byzantium as a changing and developing state that at some periods was the "superpower" of Europe.

A Concise History of Byzantium, 285-1461 by Warren T. Treadgold. Examines Byzantium's politics, military, and culture to explain the paradoxes of its long history.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin. Examines the complex ceremonies of the imperial court, as well as chariot races, monastic spirituality, diplomacy, and literature.

The Palgrave Atlas of Byzantine History by John Haldon. This historical atlas charts key aspects of the political, social and economic history of the Byzantine Empire.

Books by John Julius Norwich

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich, edited by Elizabeth Sifton. A captivating account of the origins and early years of the Byzantine empire. 48 pages of illustrations, 16 in color. Maps.

Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich. The second volume of Norwich's trilogy covers the three centuries after Charlemagne was crowned, up to the coronation of Alexius Comnenus. 32 pages of illustrations and seven maps.

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich. The third volume of Norwich's trilogy describes the end of the empire, and the fall of Constantinople in May 1453. With 32 pages of illustrations and 10 maps and tables.

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich. Condensing Norwich's three-volume history, this overview captures the splendor and strangeness of Byzantine rule, marked by family intrigues, constant warfare, political and religious strife, and personal ambition. (Review © Amazon.com.)

History of Specific Periods

History of Later Roman Empire by John Bury. Published in two volumes, this work covers the Eastern empire from the death of Theodosius I to the death of Justinian.

The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284-813 translated by Roger Scott. Theophanes was a Byzantine abbot who fell victim to the Iconoclastic persecution. His chronicle provides a unique source for the history of empire and of the Persians, Arabs, Bulgarians, and other neighboring peoples.

Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680-850: A History by Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon. Reinterprets the history of the period when the legitimacy of religious art was debated in Byzantium.

The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025 by Mark Whittow. Covers the last decade of the Roman empire as a superpower, the catastrophic crisis of the seventh century, and how the embattled Byzantine empire hung on in Constantinople and Asia Minor.

The Byzantine Revival, 780-842 by Warren Treadgold. How the Byzantine Empire, led by a succession of extraordinary rulers, emerged from a long decline to reclaim its place as a leading state of the medieval world.

A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057: Translation and Notes by John Skylitzes, translated by John Wortley. Covers the reigns of the Byzantine emperors from the death of Nicephorus I in 811 to the deposition of Michael VI in 1057, the only surviving continuous narrative of the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The author was a high official in the late 11th century.

The Emperor and the World by Alicia Walker. Exotic elements and the imaging of Middle Byzantine imperial power, 9th to 13th centuries C.E.

Byzantine Court Culture From 829 to 1204 edited by Henry MacGuire. Includes information about court costumes, ceremonies, palace gardens, and courtiers.

Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade by Anthony Kaldellis. Covers the imperial conquest under the great emperor Basil "the Bulgar-Slayer" the emergence of new foreign enemies (Pechenegs, Seljuks, and Normans) and the collapse of the empire during the second half of the eleventh century.

The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453 by Donald M. Nichol. The Byzantine empire had to rebuild itself after dismemberment by the Fourth Crusade. This book narrates the empire's struggles for survival from 1261 until its final conquest in 1453.

Reference Books

Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium edited by Alexander P. Kazhdan. A three-volume, comprehensive dictionary of Byzantine civilization. The first resource of its kind, it features over 5,000 entries written by eminent Byzantinists, covering all aspects of life in the Byzantine world.

Encyclopedia of the Byzantine Empire by Jennifer Lawler. Over 1500 entries, from Adrianopolis to Zoe, on a broad range of topics.

Historical Dictionary of Byzantium by John H. Rosser. Includes a chronology overview of Byzantine civilization a dictionary people, events, and important aspects of Byzantine culture and a bibliography.

Byzantine Empresses

Dynasties of Valentinian and Theodosius

Failure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D. edited by Noel Lenski. The first comprehensive biography of Valens and account of his troubled reign.

Theodosius: The Empire at Bay by Stephen Williams and Gerald Friell. Theodosius I was the last Roman emperor to rule over both East and West. His reign was a turning point in the history of the late Roman Empire.

Law in the Crisis of Empire 379-455 AD by Tony Honore. The Theodosian dynasty and its quaestors.

Medieval Portraits From East & West by Eleanor Duckett. Biographies of 15 people, including 4th century Eastern emperor Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria, who served as his regent. (No other Byzantine royals are profiled in this book.)

Leonid Dynasty

Roman Emperor Zeno: The Perils of Power Politics in Fifth-Century Constantinople by Peter Crawford. The life and career of the fifth-century emperor whose reign was littered with conflict.

Justinian I & Successors

Emperor Heraclius

Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium by Walter E. Kaegi. Evaluates the life and empire of the controversial and poorly understood emperor.

The Reign of Heraclius 610-641: Crisis and Confrontation by G. J. Reinink, Bernard H. Stolte, and Peter Van de Verhelst.

Phrygian (Amorian) Dynasty

The Emperor Theophilos and the East, 829-842: Court and Frontier in Byzantium During the Last Phase of Iconoclasm by Juan Signes Codoñer. Topics include the context in which Theophilos came to power, the continuous warfare with the Arabs, and the image of the emperor as a good ruler.

Macedonian Dynasty

Basil I, Founder of the Macedonian Dynasty by Norman Tobias. A study of the political and military history of the Byzantine empire in the ninth century.

The Reign of Leo VI (886-912): Politics and People by Shaun Tougher. Leo the Wise has been characterized as a careless and ineffectual emperor, but this book presents a more considered account of Leo and the politics of his age.

Leo VI and the Transformation of Byzantine Christian Identity: Writings of an Unexpected Emperor by Meredith L. D. Riedel. The Byzantine emperor Leo VI (886-912) was a scholar, and his religious education made him an unusual ruler.

The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign by Sir Steven Runciman. A study of 10th century Byzantium.

De Administrando Imperio by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, translated by R. J. H. Jenkins. Written by a 10th century emperor, this is an excellent source of information about the empire's neighbors, the Slavs and Turks.

Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia by Michael Psellus. The death of Basil II in AD 1025 ushered in decades of turbulence, corruption, and incompetence. For the following half-century of extraordinary decline, our main source is Michael Psellus (1018-96). His vivid and forceful chronicle, full of psychological insight, both portrays and exemplifies the Byzantine way of life.

Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century by Eric McGeer. New translations of the Praecepta Militaria of emperor Nikephoros Phokas and the revised version included in the Taktika of Nikephoros.

Basil II

Basil II and the Governance of Empire, 976-1025 by Catherine Holmes. The first book-length study in English of the Byzantine emperor Basil II, who governed with both subtle persuasion and brute force.

The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer by Paul Stephenson. The reign of the Byzantine emperor Basil II (976-1025) has been considered a golden age, in which his greatest achievement was the annexation of Bulgaria. This book reveals that the legend of the "Bulgar-slayer" was created long after his death.

The Days of the Warlords by Paul A. Blaum. The struggles of two Byzantine warlords, Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas, against emperor Basil II.

Byzantium in the Year 1000 edited by Paul Magdalino. Ten scholars from six countries reassess key aspects of the empire's politics and culture during the long reign of Basil II Bulgaroctonus.

Doukas Dynasty

Serving Byzantium's Emperors: The Courtly Life and Career of Michael Attaleiates by Dimitris Krallis. A microhistory of 11th-century Byzantium built around the biography of a state official whose life raise questions of identity, governance, elite culture, Romanness, Hellenism, science and skepticism.

The History by Michael Attaleiates, translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis. In 1039 Byzantium was the most powerful empire in Europe and the Near East. By 1079 it had become a politically unstable state half the size. The History of Michael Attaleiates is our main source for this astonishing reversal.

Comnenian Dynasty

The Alexiad by Anna Comnena. The author of this classic history was the daughter of Alexius I. Her book covers her father's reign and the First Crusade.

Anna Komnene and Her Times edited by Thalia Gouma-Peterson. About women's literature in Byzantium and princess Anna Comnena.

Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian by Leonora Neville. Byzantine princess Anna Komnene is known for two things: plotting to murder her brother to usurp the throne, and writing an epic history of her father. This book re-establishes her identity as an author rather than as a failed conspirator.

The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan. According to tradition, the First Crusade began at Pope Urban II's instigation. But what if the real catalyst was Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos?

Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus by John Cinnamus. Account of the reigns of John II and Manuel I, written by a secretary of Manuel I.

John II Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium: In the Shadow of Father and Son edited by Alessandra Bucossi and Alex Rodriguez Suarez. Papers about the Byzantine emperor John II Comnenus, who reigned from 1118 to 1143.

The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 by Paul Magdalino. This book, the first devoted to Manuel's reign for over 80 years, re-evaluates the emperor in the light of recent scholarship.

Palaiologos Dynasty

Imperial Twilight by Constance Head. The Palaiologos dynasty and the decline of Byzantium.

The Early Palaeologan Renaissance 1261-C. 1360 by Edmund Fryde. How emperors and high officials revived the glories of ancient Greek culture after the recovery of Constantinople in 1261.

The Reluctant Emperor by Donald M. Nicol. A biography of John Cantacuzene, Byzantine emperor and monk, 1295-1383.

Manuel II Palaiologos (1350-1425): A Byzantine Emperor in a Time of Tumult by Siren Çelik. This biography constructs an in-depth picture of Manuel as a ruler, author and personality.

The Immortal Emperor by Donald M. Nichol. Biography of Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Christian emperor of Constantinople and Byzantium. The book also discusses recent claimants to the Byzantine throne.

The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Steven Runciman. This classic account shows how the fall of Constantinople in May 1453, after a siege of several weeks, came as a bitter shock to Western Christendom. To the Turks, victory guaranteed that their empire would last.

Byzantine Court and Society

Flavours of Byzantium by Andrew Dalby. A study of the food that was eaten at the court of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople in the Middle Ages.

Byzantine Dress: Representations of Secular Dress in Eighth- to Twelfth-Century Painting by Jennifer L. Ball. Examines how Byzantine clothes reflected, rank, wealth, and fashion.

The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium by Kathryn M. Ringrose. Eunuchs were prominent in both the imperial court and the church, and uniquely suited for important roles in Byzantine life.

Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire by Marcus Rautman. Learn about Byzantine time-keeping, weddings, sports, games, skin care, humor, education, and more.

The Economic History of Byzantium edited by Angeliki E. Laiou and Charalampos Bouras. Covers the Byzantine economy from the 7th through the 15th century.

Byzantine Art & Architecture

Byzantine Art and Architecture: An Introduction by Lyn Rodley. Covers the whole Byzantine period from the 4th to the 14th century by period. Illustrated with over 300 maps, plans, and halftones.

Oxford History of Art: Byzantine Art by Robin Cormack. Focuses on the art of Constantinople from 330 to 1453.

Art of the Byzantine Era by David Talbot Rice. A complete account of Byzantine art from the reign of Justinian to the fall of Constantinople.

Sacred Founders by Diliana Angelova. From the time of Roman emperor Augustus through early Byzantium, the connection between imperial and sacred art helped legitimize the authority of the emperor and his family.

Glory of Byzantium: Arts and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261 edited by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom. A stunning, 604 page coffee-table artbook based on the exhibition of the art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557) edited by Helen C. Evans, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This book, the first to focus exclusively on the last centuries of the Byzantine era, presents hundreds of objects in all media.

The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts of Antiquity by Andrei Alekseyev. Focuses on objects made for wealthy patrons from precious materials such as gold, silver and ivory.

City of Constantinople

Istanbul: The Imperial City by John Freely. Tells the story of the city from its foundation to the present day.

Byzantine Military & Wars

Fighting Emperors of Byzantium by John Carr. Assesses the contribution of emperors whose military leadership determined the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Byzantium and Its Army 284-1081 by Warren Treadgold. The first general book on the Byzantine army in any language. The author traces the army from its reorganization under Diocletian (284-305) until its disintegration after the battle of Manzikert (1071).

Warfare, State And Society In The Byzantine World 565-1204 by John Haldon. Examines Byzantine attitudes toward war, effect of war on society and culture, strategy and tactics, and more.

Byzantium at War, AD 600-1453 by John Haldon. Tells the full story of the Byzantine Empire, from the days when it was barely clinging to survival until its last emperor died fighting on the ramparts.

The Late Byzantine Army: Arms and Society, 1204-1453 by Mark C. Bartusis. Examines in detail the use of the Byzantine army as an instrument of policy, and as an institution in itself.

Byzantine Tradition After Byzantium

Byzantium After Byzantium by Nikolae Iorga, translated by Laura Treptow. Argues that Byzantium did not die, but continued to influence European history up to the beginning of the 19th century.

The Byzantine Hellene by Dimiter Angelov. Highly illustrated biography of Theodore II Laskaris, who ruled over the Byzantine state of Nicaea after the fall of Constantinople in 1204.

Fiction About the Byzantine Empire

The High City by Cecelia Holland. Byzantine emperor Basil II's most trusted troops are foreign mercenaries, including the son of an Irish slave, who comes to the notice of the emperor's wife.

Children's Books

The Byzantine Empire by Elsa Marston. Children's book.

Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett. A young adult novel about Anna Comnena, Byzantine princess and historian.

In the Heroic Age of Basil II: Emperor of Byzantium by Penelope Delta. Fiction for children ages 9 to 12.

Christian and Muslim Rule

While Constantine’s founding of New Rome coincided with efforts to establish Christianity as the state religion, that didn’t formally happen until after Theodosius I ascended to power in 379. He convened the First Council of Constantinople in 381, which supported the Council of Nicaea of 325, and declared the city patriarch as second in power only to Rome’s.

Constantinople became a center of the iconoclast controversy after Leo III in 730 outlawed the worshipping of religious icons. Although the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 reversed that decision, iconoclasm resumed as a rule of law less than 30 years later and lasted until 843.

With the Great Schism of 1054, when the Christian church split into Roman and Eastern divisions, Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, remaining so even after the Muslim Ottoman Empire took control of the city in the 15th century.

Blue versus Green: Rocking the Byzantine Empire

“Bread and circuses,” the poet Juvenal wrote scathingly. “That’s all the common people want.” Food and entertainment. Or to put it another way, basic sustenance and bloodshed, because the most popular entertainments offered by the circuses of Rome were the gladiators and chariot racing, the latter often as deadly as the former. As many as 12 four-horse teams raced one another seven times around the confines of the greatest arenas—the Circus Maximus in Rome was 2,000 feet long, but its track was not more than 150 feet wide—and rules were few, collisions all but inevitable, and hideous injuries to the charioteers extremely commonplace. Ancient inscriptions frequently record the deaths of famous racers in their early 20s, crushed against the stone spina that ran down the center of the race track or dragged behind their horses after their chariots were smashed.

Charioteers, who generally started out as slaves, took these risks because there were fortunes to be won. Successful racers who survived could grow enormously wealthy—another Roman poet, Martial, grumbled in the first century A.D. that it was possible to make as much as 15 bags of gold for winning a single race. Diocles, the most successful charioteer of them all, earned an estimated 36 million sesterces in the course of his glittering career, a sum sufficient to feed the whole city of Rome for a year. Spectators, too, wagered and won substantial sums, enough for the races to be plagued by all manner of dirty tricks there is evidence that the fans sometimes hurled nail-studded curse tablets onto the track in an attempt to disable their rivals.

In the days of the Roman republic, the races featured four color-themed teams, the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and the Blues, each of which attracted fanatical support. By the sixth century A.D., after the western half of the empire fell, only two of these survived—the Greens had incorporated the Reds, and the Whites had been absorbed into the Blues. But the two remaining teams were wildly popular in the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople, and their supporters were as passionate as ever—so much so that they were frequently responsible for bloody riots.

The Byzantine Empire at its height under the Emperor Justinian in c. 560 (Wikimedia Commons)

Exactly what the Blues and the Greens stood for remains a matter of dispute among historians. For a long time it was thought that the two groups gradually evolved into what were essentially early political parties, the Blues representing the ruling classes and standing for religious orthodoxy, and the Greens being the party of the people. The Greens were also depicted as proponents of the highly divisive theology of Monophysitism, an influential heresy which held that Christ was not simultaneously divine and human but had only a single nature. (In the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., it threatened to tear the Byzantine Empire apart.) These views were vigorously challenged in the 1970s by Alan Cameron, not least on the grounds that the games were more important than politics in this period, and perfectly capable of arousing violent passions on their own. In 501, for example, the Greens ambushed the Blues in Constantinople’s amphitheater and massacred 3,000 of them. Four years later, in Antioch, there was a riot caused by the triumph of Porphyrius, a Green charioteer who had defected from the Blues.

Even Cameron concedes that this suggests that after about 500 the rivalry between the Greens and the Blues escalated and spread well outside Constantinople’s chariot racing track, the Hippodrome–a slightly smaller version of the Circus Maximus whose central importance to the capital is illustrated by its position directly adjacent to the main imperial palace. (Byzantine emperors had their own entrance to the arena, a passageway that led directly from the palace to their private box.) This friction came to a head during the reign of Justinian (c. 482-565), one of Byzantium’s greatest but most controversial emperors.

The ruins of Constantinople’s Hippodrome in 1600, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in De Ludis Circensibus. The spina that stood at the center of the chariot racing circuit was still visible then in modern Istanbul, only three of the ancient monuments remain. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the course of Justinian’s reign, the empire recovered a great deal of lost territory, including most of the North African littoral and the whole of Italy, but it did so at enormous cost and only because the emperor was served by some of the most able of Byzantine heroes—the great general Belisarius, who has good claim to be ranked alongside Alexander, Napoleon and Lee an aged but vastly competent eunuch named Narses (who continued to lead armies in the field into his 90s) and, perhaps most important, John of Cappadocia, the greatest tax administrator of his day. John’s chief duty was to raise the money needed to fund Justinian’s wars, and his ability to do so made him easily the most reviled man in the empire, not least among the Blues and Greens.

Justinian had a fourth adviser, though, one whose influence over him was even more scandalous than the Cappadocian’s. This was his wife, Theodora, who refused to play the subordinate role normally expected of a Byzantine empress. Theodora, who was exceptionally beautiful and unusually intelligent, took an active role in the management of the empire. This was a controversial enough move in itself, but it was rendered vastly more so by the empress’s lowly origins. Theodora had grown up among the working classes of Byzantium. She was a child of the circus who became Constantinople’s best known actress—which, in those days, was the same thing as saying that she was the Empire’s most infamous courtesan.

The Emperor Justinian, from a mosaic at Ravenna (Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks to the Secret History of the contemporary writer Procopius, we have a good idea of how Theodora met Justinian in about 520. Since Procopius utterly loathed her, we also have what is probably the most uncompromisingly direct personal attack mounted on any emperor or empress. Procopius portrayed Theodora as a wanton of the most promiscuous sort, and no reader is likely to forget the picture he painted of a stage act that the future empress was said to have performed involving her naked body, some grain, and a gaggle of trained geese.

From our perspective, Theodora’s morals are of less importance than her affiliations. Her mother was probably an acrobat. She was certainly married to the man who held the position of bear-keeper to the Greens. When he died unexpectedly, leaving her with three young daughters, the mother was left destitute. Desperate, she hastily remarried and went with her infant children to the arena, where she begged the Greens to find a job for her new husband. They pointedly ignored her, but the Blues—sensing the opportunity to paint themselves as more magnanimous—found work for him. Unsurprisingly, Theodora thereafter grew up to be a violent partisan of the Blues, and her unswerving support for the faction became a factor in Byzantine life after 527, when she was crowned as empress—not least because Justinian himself, before he became Emperor, had given 30 years of loud support to the same team.

Justinian’s empress, Theodora, a leading supporter of the Blues, rose from the most humble beginnings, captivating the emperor with her beauty, intelligence and determination. (Wikimedia Commons)

These two threads—the fast-growing importance of the circus factions and the ever-increasing burden of taxation—combined in 532. By this time, John of Cappadocia had introduced no fewer than 26 new taxes, many of which fell, for the first time, on Byzantium’s wealthiest citizens. Their discontent sent shock waves through the imperial city, which were only magnified when Justinian reacted harshly to an outbreak of fighting between the Greens and the Blues at the races of January 10. Sensing the disorder had the potential to spread, and eschewing his allegiance to the Blues, the emperor sent in his troops. Seven of the ringleaders in the rioting were condemned to death.

The men were taken out of the city a few days later to be hanged at Sycae, on the east side of the Bosphorus, but the executions were botched. Two of the seven survived when the scaffold broke the mob that had assembled to watch the hangings cut them down and hustled them off to the security of a nearby church. The two men were, as it happened, a Blue and a Green, and thus the two factions found themselves, for once, united in a common cause. The next time the chariots raced in the Hippodrome, Blues and Greens alike called on Justinian to spare the lives of the condemned, who had been so plainly and so miraculously spared by God.

Soon the crowd’s loud chanting took on a hostile edge. The Greens vented their resentment at the imperial couple’s support for their rivals, and the Blues their anger at Justinian’s sudden withdrawal of favor. Together, the two factions shouted the words of encouragement they generally reserved for the charioteers—Nika! Nika! (“Win! Win!”) It became obvious that the victory they anticipated was of the factions over the emperor, and with the races hastily abandoned, the mob poured out into the city and began to burn it down.

For five days the rioting continued. The Nika Riots were the most widespread and serious disturbances ever to occur in Constantinople, a catastrophe exacerbated by the fact that the capital had nothing resembling a police force. The mob called for the dismissal of John of Cappadocia, and the Emperor immediately obliged, but to no effect. Nothing Justinian did could assuage the crowd.

On the fourth day, the Greens and Blues sought out a possible replacement for the emperor. On the fifth, January 19, Hypatius, a nephew of a former ruler, was hustled to the Hippodrome and seated on the imperial throne.

It was at this point that Theodora proved her mettle. Justinian, panicked, was all for fleeing the capital to seek the support of loyal army units. His empress refused to countenance so cowardly an act. “If you, my lord,” she told him,

wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: the purple is the noblest winding-sheet.

Belisarius, the Byzantines’ greatest general—he once conquered the whole of Italy with fewer than 10,000 men–led the troops who massacred 30,000 Greens and Blues in the Hippodrome to put an end to the Nika Riots. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shamed, Justinian determined to stay and fight. Both Belisarius and Narses were with him in the palace, and the two generals planned a counterstrike. The Blues and the Greens, still assembled in the Hippodrome, were to be locked into the arena. After that, loyal troops, most of them Thracians and Goths with no allegiance to either of the circus factions, could be sent in to cut them down.

Imagine a force of heavily armed troops advancing on the crowds in the MetLife Stadium or Wembley and you’ll have some idea of how things developed in the Hippodrome, a stadium with a capacity of about 150,000 that held tens of thousands of partisans of the Greens and Blues. While Belisarius’ Goths hacked away with swords and spears, Narses and the men of the Imperial Bodyguard blocked the exits and prevented any of the panicking rioters from escaping. “Within a few minutes,” John Julius Norwich writes in his history of Byzantium, “the angry shouts of the great amphitheater had given place to the cries and groans of wounded and dying men soon these too grew quiet, until silence spread over the entire arena, its sand now sodden with the blood of the victims.”

Byzantine historians put the death toll in the Hippodrome at about 30,000. That would be as much as 10 percent of the population of the city at the time. They were, Geoffrey Greatrex observes, “Blues as well as Greens, innocent as well as guilty the Chrionicon Paschale notes the detail that ‘even Antipater, the tax-collector of Antioch Theopolis, was slain.’ ”

With the massacre complete, Justinian and Theodora had little trouble re-establishing control over their smoldering capital. The unfortunate Hypatius was executed the rebels’ property was confiscated, and John of Cappadocia was swiftly reinstalled to levy yet more burdensome taxes on the depopulated city.

The Nika Riots marked the end of an era in which circus factions held some sway over the greatest empire west of China, and signaled the end of chariot racing as a mass spectator sport within Byzantium. Within a few years the great races and Green-Blue rivalries were memories. They would be replaced, however, with something yet more threatening–for as Norwich observes, within a few years of Justinian’s death theological debate had become what amounted to the empire’s national sport. And with the Orthodox battling the Monophysites, and the iconoclasts waiting in the wings, Byzantium was set on course for rioting and civil war that would put even the massacre in the Hippodrome in sorry context.

Alan Cameron. Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976 James Allan Evans. The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002 Sotiris Glastic. “The organization of chariot racing in the great hippodrome of Byzantine Constantinople,” in The International Journal of Sports History 17 (2000) Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Revolt: A Reappraisal,” in Journal of Hellenic Studies 117 (1997) Pieter van der Horst. “Jews and Blues in late antiquity,” in idem (ed), Jews and Christians in the Graeco-Roman Context. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006 Donald Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007 Michael Maas (ed). The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: CUP, 2005 George Ostrogorsky. History of the Byzantine State. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980 John Julius Norwich. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. London: Viking, 1988 Procopius. The Secret History. London: Penguin, 1981 Marcus Rautman. Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire. Westport : Greenwood Press, 2006.

Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire: the continuation of the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking, eastern part of the Mediterranean. Christian in nature, it was perennially at war with the Muslims. It flourished during the reign of the Macedonian emperors its demise was the consequence of attacks by Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks.

Byzantium was the name of a small, but important town at the Bosphorus, the strait which connects the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean to the Black Sea, and separates the continents of Europe and Asia. In Greek times the town was at the frontier between the Greek and the Persian world. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great made both worlds part of his hellenistic universe, and later Byzantium became a town of growing importance within the Roman Empire.

By the third century CE, the Romans had many thousands of miles of border to defend. Growing pressure caused a crisis, especially in the Danube/Balkan area, where the Goths violated the borders. In the East, the Sasanian Persians transgressed the frontiers along the Euphrates and Tigris. The emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) was one of the first to realize the impossibility of managing the empire's problems from distant Rome.


So, in 330 Constantine decided to make Byzantium, which he had refounded a couple of years before and named after himself, his new residence. Constantinople lay halfway between the Balkan and the Euphrates, and not too far from the immense wealth and manpower of Asia Minor, the vital part of the empire.

"Byzantium" was to become the name for the East-Roman Empire. After the death of Constantine, in an attempt to overcome the growing military and administrative problem, the Roman Empire was divided into an eastern and a western part. The western part is considered as definitely finished by the year 476, when its last ruler was dethroned and a military leader, Odoacer, took power.


In the course of the fourth century, the Roman world became increasingly Christian, and the Byzantine Empire was certainly a Christian state. It was the first empire in the world to be founded not only on worldly power, but also on the autority of the Church. Paganism, however, stayed an important source of inspiration for many people during the first centuries of the Byzantine Empire.

When Christianity became organized, the Church was led by five patriarchs, who resided in Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. The Council of Chalcedon (451) decided that the patriarch of Constantinopel was to be the second in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Only the pope in Rome was his superior. After the Great Schism of 1054 the eastern (Orthodox) church separated form the western (Roman Catholic) church. The centre of influence of the orthodox churches later shifted to Moscow.

Egypt, Byzantine decorated tile, St. Lawrence

Thessaloniki, Agora, Wall painting with Sts Cosmas and Damianus

Byzantine silk with St. Demetrius or St George

Byzantine reliquary with Daniel in the lion's den

Cultural Life

Since the age of the great historian Edward Gibbon, the Byzantine Empire has a reputation of stagnation, great luxury and corruption. Most surely the emperors in Constantinopel held an eastern court. That means courtlife was ruled by a very formal hierarchy. There were all kinds of political intrigues between factions. However, the image of a luxury-addicted, conspiring, decadent court with treacherous empresses and an inert state system is historically inaccurate. On the contrary: for its age, the Byzantine Empire was quite modern. Its tax system and administration were so efficient that the empire survived more than a thousand years.

The culture of Byzantium was rich and affluent, while science and technology also flourished. Old literary genres were practiced again: the art of epistolography is just one exemple (e.g., Aristaenetus).

Very important for us, nowadays, was the Byzantine tradition of rhetoric and public debate. Philosophical and theological discources were important in public life, even emperors taking part in them. The debates kept knowledge and admiration for the Greek philosophical and scientific heritage alive. Byzantine intellectuals quoted their classical predecessors with great respect, even though they had not been Christians. And although it was the Byzantine emperor Justinian who closed Plato's famous Academy of Athens in 529, the Byzantines are also responsible for much of the passing on of the Greek legacy to the Muslims, who later helped Europe to explore this knowledge again and so stood at the beginning of European Renaissance.

History: Justinian

Byzantine history goes from the founding of Constantinople as imperial residence on 11 May 330 until 29 May 1453, when the Ottoman sultan Memhet II conquered the city. Most times the history of the Empire is divided in three periods.

The first of these, from 330 till 867, saw the creation and survival of a powerful empire. During the reign of Justinian (527-565), a last attempt was made to reconquer provinces of the former Roman Empire under one ruler, the one in Constantinople. This plan largely succeeded: the wealthy provinces in Italy and Africa were reconquered, Libya was rejuvenated, and money bought sufficient diplomatic influence in the realms of the Frankish rulers in Gaul and the Visigothic dynasty in Spain. The refound unity was celebrated with the construction of the church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. The price for the reunion, however, was high. Justinian had to pay off the Sasanian Persians, and had to deal with firm resistance, for instance in Italy.

/> Hagia Sophia, Splendid Gate

Under Justinian, the lawyer Tribonian (500-547) created the famous Corpus Iuris . The Code of Justinian, a compilation of all the imperial laws, was published in 529 soon the Institutions (a handbook) and the Digests (fifty books of jurisprudence), were added. The project was completed with some additional laws, the Novellae . The achievement becomes even more impressive when we realize that Tribonian was temporarily relieved of his function during the Nika riots of 532, which in the end weakened the position of patricians and senators in the government, and strengthened the position of the emperor and his wife.

After Justinian, the Byzantine and Sasanian empires suffered heavy losses in a terrible war. The troops of the Persian king Khusrau II captured Antioch and Damascus, stole the True Cross from Jerusalem, occupied Alexandria, and even reached the Bosphorus. In the end, the Byzantine armies were victorious under the emperor Heraclius (r.610-642).

However, the empire was weakened and soon lost Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Africa to the Arabs. For a moment, Syracuse on Sicily served as imperial residence. At the same time, parts of Italy were conquered by the Langobards, while Bulgars settled south of the Danube. The ultimate humiliation took place in 800, when the leader of the Frankish barbarians in the West, Charlemagne, preposterously claimed that he, and not the ruler in Constantinople, was the Christian emperor.

History: the Macedonian Dynasty

The second period in Byzantine history consists of its apogee. It fell during the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057). After an age of contraction, the empire expanded again and in the end, almost every Christian city in the East was within the empire's borders. On the other hand, wealthy Egypt and large parts of Syria were forever lost, and Jerusalem was not reconquered.

In 1014 the mighty Bulgarian empire, which had once been a very serious threat to the Byzantine state, was finally overcome after a bloody war, and became part of the Byzantine Empire. The victorious emperor, Basilius II, was surnamed Boulgaroktonos , "slayer of Bulgars". The northern border now was finally secured and the empire flourished.

Throughout this whole period the Byzantine currency, the nomisma , was the leading currency in the Mediterranean world. It was a stabil currency ever since the founding of Constantinopel. Its importance shows how important Byzantium was in economics and finance.

/> Joshua, dressed as a Byzantine Soldier

Constantinople was the city where people of every religion and nationality lived next to one another, all in their own quarters and with their own social structures. Taxes for foreign traders were just the same as for the inhabitants. This was unique in the world of the middle ages.

History: Crisis

Despite these favorable conditions, Italian cities like Venice and Amalfi, gradually gained influence and became serious competititors. Trade in the Byzantine world was no longer the monopoly of the Byzantines themselves. Fuel was added to these beginning trade conflicts when the pope and patriarch of Constantinople went separate ways in 1054 (the Great Schism). Another problem was the rise of Byzantine aristocratic families, which were usually unwilling to submit their private interest to the interest of the commonwealth.

/> The battlefield of Manzikert

Decay became inevitable after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Here, the Byzantine army under the emperor Romanus IV Diogenes, although reinforced by Frankish mercenaries, was beaten by an army of the Seljuk Turks, commanded by Alp Arslan ("the Lion"). Romanus was probably betrayed by one of his own generals, Joseph Tarchaniotes, and by his nephew Andronicus Ducas.

/> Obelisk of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus

After the battle, the Byzantine Empire lost Antioch, Aleppo, and Manzikert, and within years, the whole of Asia Minor was overrun by Turks. From now on, the empire was to suffer from manpower shortage almost permanantly. In this crisis, a new dynasty, the Comnenes, came to power. To obtain new Frankish mercenaries, emperor Alexius sent a request for help to pope Urban II, who responded by summoning the western world for the Crusades. The western warriors swore loyalty to the emperor, reconquered parts of Anatolia, but kept Antioch, Edessa, and the Holy Land for themselves.

History: Decline and Fall

For the Byzantines, it was increasingly difficult to contain the westerners. They were not only fanatic warriors, but also shrewd traders. In the twelfth century, the Byzantines created a system of diplomacy in which deals were concluded with towns like Venice that secured trade by offering favorable positions to merchants of friendly cities.

Soon, the Italians were everywhere, and they were not always willing to accept that the Byzantines had a different faith. In the age of the Crusades, the Greek Orthodox Church could become a target of violence too. So it could happen that Crusaders plundered the Constantinople in 1204. Much of the loot can still be seen in the church of San Marco in Venice.

For more than half a century, the empire was ruled by monarchs from the West, but they never succeeded in gaining full control. Local rulers continued the Byzantine traditions, like the grandiloquently named "emperors" of the Anatolian mini-states surrounding Trapezus, where the Comnenes continued to rule, and Nicaea, which was ruled by the Palaiologan dynasty.

The Seljuk Turks, who are also known as the Sultanate of Rum, benefited greatly of the division of the Byzantine Empire, and initially strengthened their positions. Their defeat, in 1243, in a war against the Mongols, prevented them from adding Nicaea and Trapezus as well. Consequently, the two Byzantine mini-states managed to survive.

/> John the Baptist (fourteenth century)

The Palaiologans even managed to capture Constantinople in 1261, but the Byzantine Empire was now in decline. It kept losing territory, until finally the Ottoman Empire (which had replaced the Sultanate of Rum) under Mehmet II conquered Constantinopel in 1453 and took over government. Trapezus surrendered eight years later.

Artistic Legacy

After the Ottoman take-over, many Byzantine artists and scholars fled to the West, taking with them precious manuscripts. They were not the first ones. Already in the fourteenth century, Byzantine artisans, abandoning the declining cultural life of Constantinople, had found ready employ in Italy. Their work was greatly appreciated and western artist were ready to copy their art. One of the most striking examples of Byzantine influence is to be seen in the work of the painter Giotto, one of the important Italian artists of the early Renaissance.

List of site sources >>>

Watch the video: Βυζάντιο - Βυζαντινή Ιστορία (January 2022).